Monthly Archives: May 2010

TOR: The Skirmish

A lot of talk recently about Star Wars: The Old Republic’s companion system, recently expanded upon in the IGN article. Mixed reactions from some, ranging from unsure to the more-or-less positive.

Take this summary from Bio Break (I’ve added the highlighting):

  • You can collect multiple companions, but can only have one out at a time
  • Companions can be droids and from races other than humans
  • Each companion brings something different to the game in terms of skills: tank, heals, hacking, DPS, crowd control.
  • They have special abilities in battle
  • You can equip gear on your companion
  • You get your first companion early on
  • Companions have a relationship with you, which can change (friends, enemies, lovers)
  • You can change that relationship and their attitudes with the Affection system (words, gifts, actions)
  • They give commentary and viewpoints on the world and your actions
  • Companions are optional, not mandatory for play

For anyone familiar with LotRO’s skirmish system, the parallel’s are obvious; the similarities are nearly half of the list above. The major difference, of course, is availability – in LotRO, Skirmish soldiers are only available inside Skirmish instances, whereas in TOR they will be available throughout.

I tend to lean towards the cautiously optimistic, but I do have a few concerns:

  • Complexity – As a Completionist, the idea that there are parts of a story or world that I won’t see makes me cringe. However, from the perspective of storytelling, character growth, and immersion, more depth can be a very good thing; we’ll see how this plays out in TOR. The complexity to which I am referring here is that we’re essentially being given two characters to play; except that it’s more than two – it’s your character plus every combination of Companion possible. Plus Affection. Plus gear. That’s a lot of options to keep tabs on, and depending on how the Companion System plays alongside the other game systems, there is potential for issues with class balance, min/maxxing, and a host of others. Additionally, does the addition of Companions mean that there are even more effective “classes” beyond the 8 (16 or more if you count Advanced Classes) – every class plus their chosen Companion?
  • Grouping – It remains to be seen how this whole system plays out in groups. Will Companions be present during groups? Does having three actual players mean there will be six avatars playing? Will this eliminate the need for grouping? Will the Companion a player has “equipped” have an impact on the rest of the group? On their experience during story conversations? Will players be expected to bring certain Companions when joining groups, even if it isn’t the one they would have chosen (from, say, a story perspective)? All issues that need to be addressed, and have potential for negative impact on fun.
  • Irrevocable Impact – Depending on how the Companion system plays out, I may have to wait months before playing TOR. What if I go down “the wrong” path of a certain Companion with my main character, only to realize this too late? Take, for example, the Epic Quests in LotRO – if TOR has similar, story-centric, non-repeatable quests, and I have “the wrong” Companion with me during a conversation or interaction, what then? Have I made a choice for my character that is irrevocable, and one that will play out in a way that I don’t like? Do I start all over again? It may be better to wait months for others to map out all of the options and impacts each choice has before starting up myself.
  • Necessity – Will I be able to leave my Companions behind? And, if so, will I be handicapped if I choose to do so? My specific concern here is my interest in the Imperial Agent class. I’m anticipating this as one of my preferred classes, and always pictured this as a “solo character”. Not that I would only play solo, or shun groups, but, from a story perspective, as an individual who works alone. Will I be gimping myself if I choose to leave a Companion behind? Or, as I hope, will there be options for “remote” Companions, similar to how Luke and R2/C3PO often worked – across comlinks.
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Is it Vanity? Or Camaraderie?

Interesting post by Syncaine over at Hardcore Casual about the difference between single-player and massive RPGs, and why Star Wars: The Old Republic will be a bad MMO (he makes a distinction between ‘game’ and ‘MMO’, with which I agree, even though I don’t necessarily agree with him about TOR…yet).

While I disagree with a few points (specifically the supposed direction TOR is going, and it’s fate), I completely agree with many points. Particularly, the necessary difference in mechanics and types of content between single-player and multi-player RPGs. He’s right – the nature of the game and the extent of a timesink it represents dictates how it plays and, more importantly, what players do. A single-player RPG that required, or even encouraged, grinding monsters in a specific zone for hours on end would be torn to shreds.

So why is it acceptable in MMOs (I’m looking at you Turbine, with your damnable Deed Log)? What makes it tolerable? I think it also comes back to the nature of the game. Grinding boars alone is just plain dull. But grinding boars together with a group, or even just grinding while in guild chat, because more palatable. The nature of combat mechanics in WoW or LotRO allow us to grind endless mobs with only minimal attention paid to what we’re actually doing, leaving the rest of our attention and energy to be paid to the other people with whom we’re sharing our space.

In many ways, the games encourage this, on the assumption that the achievement systems make players log in night after night, and the more a player logs in, the more likely they are to continue to be a paying customer. In reality, for me at least, the opposite is true – good gameplay and story will keep me paying (except for LotRO – Turbine has gotten all the subscription money out of me they’re going to get), where “the grind” completely turns me away. Who has the time? More importantly, who wants to spend their time like this?

If it comes down to the presence of other people, I have to wonder: is it vanity or camaraderie that makes the grind worth doing? Is it more a desire to achieve, in the eyes of others as much as ourselves? Or is it just that miserly loves company?

There’s Always a First

Aaaaaaaaaaaaah...I had another post all set for today, but it’s just going to have to wait. I’ve had a first-time experience, not just in LotRO, but in MMOs in general. I didn’t ragequit, but I logged out pretty much disgusted. I consider myself a fairly patient person, and an optimistic gamer – I can find some value in pretty much any content I come across. Or, at least, I could.

The first part of this experience came two days ago, when I tried to finish the Water-wheels 3 man instance with two kinmates. The entire instance was going very well. I thought overall it was a great design, both in layout and in the mechanics of levers and gates, and freeing the water wheels of obstruction. Until the final encounter, it was shaping up to be among my favorite areas.

Then we faced Caerlûg. And the whole thing fell apart. Between the knockback throwing us into certain death beneath the pistons, the 1k damage hits, and the stun that kept us from pulling the lever that interupts Caerlûg’s healing cycle, it was like beating our heads against a stone wall. We got frustrated enough to call it a night.

Last night it was the Dark Delvings and Gurvand. Some of you are already groaning (those who have probably already run the instance). This barely started out well, and we never made it past the first boss fight. Between the insane knockback of the Void Eater, being pushed out of the fight within minutes (either by being knocked off the platform or being caught in the Glow Worm strands), the insane number of adds leading to complete lockdown on induction-based skills, and the ridiculously punishing debuff (either for being outside the “magic circle” or just plain “taking too long”), our group was fed up in short order. There’s a reason that Dark Delvings is the least-run instance in Moria – it’s just not fun. I pity the Guardians and Wardens  who need this instance for their class quest (I think).

Both of these, in my mind, represent bad design. For Water-wheels, the instance requires a specific combination  of classes (or nearly enough as to not make a difference) – Minstrel and Champion. The last slot is for the lucky player.  For the Dark Delvings, it’s because success seems to be entirely dependent on luck – if you’re lucky enough to avoid getting caught in the strands and triggering exponential adds, or you’re lucky enough to avoid getting knocked off the platform, or you’re lucky enough to have exactly the right classes, ad nauseum. Too much luck, not enough strategy or skill, or both.

Some people are probably thinking, “Boo-hoo. Many players have completed those instances successfully. You’re doing it wrong.” That may be; they may be “do-able”. But are they fun? Are we enjoying ourselves while running the instance? Content that is required for many players! This is why Turbine failed here; not because they made impossible content, but because they made content that is impossible to enjoy. When 6 level-capped players with decent gear drop group and collectively state, “I’m not coming back here until they patch this *%$#”, the developers are doing something wrong.

Voice Work

Chau chi lan tsu sun tsa!

Massively pointed to the recently released APB opening cinematic over on GameTrailers. I’ve been interested in this game since it was announced, became even more so when Real Time Worlds announced their pricing structure, and am now getting truly excited. Already pre-purchased it on Steam.

The cinematic does a nice job of showing off the game engine, and a great job of setting up some of the backstory and, more importantly, the explanation of why vigilante Enforcers have been empowered to fight crime. Violently.

When I joined up with the kinship, I bit the bullet and finally hooked up the mic on my headset, and started using in-game chat and Ventrilo. It’s made a world of difference in my level of participation in kin events and instance runs. So it occurred to me, when watching that video, that players could be in for a serious disconnect when logging into APB.

When I log into our kin’s chat server, I’m greeted by a lot of friendly people, all speaking one version or another of English. But it’s all pretty vanilla English. Though it doesn’t really jive with how I think the inhabitants of Middle Earth should sound (no English or Scottish accents to be heard, though we do have some Canadians!), it’s pretty close.

Consider the setting for APB, and listen to the voice work already in some of the APB videos. This is a cops ‘n robbers game with a decidedly gangsta influence, in an urban setting, with heavy Rap influences throughout (from the music to the fashion to the  vehicle “accessorizing”). Should I be working on my ‘gangsta’ accent?

Some people might think this plays into cliches (or worse). That may be, but not anything that Real Time Worlds hasn’t already put there themselves.

So what does this have to do with Indiana Jones on a rope bridge?

It actually plays into something I wish we saw more of in MMOs – the language barrier. Most chat mechanisms in games are built for accessibility, and to bring people together. To facilitate communication, cooperation, and teamwork. But what about that scene on the rope bridge, where Indy calls out to Shortround, telling him to hold on. Sure, a language barrier can be a deterrent. But it can also be strategic, and it certainly adds to immersion.

Besides, as most will agree, there are some people who just aren’t worth talking to.

That’s What I’m Talking About!

An update to the last post about creating drama, and memorable experiences. I finally got around to finishing out some of the Epic Quests, specifically Volume 2 Book 7 and the beginning of Book 8.

In terms of creating an experience I won’t soon forget, this is pretty close to what I had in mind! For Burglars in particular, this is an ideal part of the story arc.

*SPOILER’S AHEAD* (not the picture…)

Tracking down the “secret road” and following it into Mazog’s camp, only to sneak through for a stealth hit at the big orc. A last minute save by the “cavalry” (Broin and his elvish buddies), alliances by Elves and Dwarves after countless years of hostility, and the redemption of a key NPC. Then to use a flashback instance to explore the escape! Just…WOW! These quests had it all.

If I had one complaint, and as a gamer I must, it would be the relatively low population of Mazog’s camp, and his paltry personal bodyguard. I would have liked to see more here. I know it’s a solo quest, and it’s meant to be a stealth mission (hence my absolute love for this particular chunk of content!), but once Mazog is reached I would think he would have more bodyguards. Turbine already implemented a “God Mode” mechanic for Epic Quests to allow players to run them solo – why not turn it on here? It would have added something extra-special to an already fabulous experience!

Anyway, Not the hands-down best storytelling I’ve experienced in Lord of the Rings Online, but it definitely ranks near the top. Funny that I would come across this, after procrastinating on the Epic Quests for so long, immediately after complaining about missed opportunities for drama, and player interactions. Nice job, Turbine!

More Drama: Entering Lothlorien

Yes, I’ve been in Lothlorien with my Burglar for some time now (still haven’t made it to Mirkwood yet, though). It’s one of my favorite areas in the game so far, mostly because it’s gorgeous, and because I find it a nice change of pace.

But I was listening to the soundtrack for The Fellowship of the Rings movie last night (yes, I’m that kind of LotR fan!), and it got me thinking. It was at the track The Bridge of Khazad Dum, toward the end where, in the movies, the Fellowship, sans Gandalf, exit Moria and find themselves beside the Mirrormere. It’s a very poignant part of the soundtrack, and the entire scene, with the Fellowship mourning the loss of Gandalf, combined with the music, is extremely memorable. It’s one of my favorite scenes and has always stuck with me.

And I thought back to my personal introduction to Lothlorien:

Camping!

Welcome to Lothlorien....

Another quest hub, with another group asking for favors. How dramatic!

Don’t take this as a too-harsh criticism of Turbine. As in most mechanics for LotRO, I understand why it was done this way. I even understand the logic behind it in terms of the lore. Moria had to contain a lot of content, and it was ripe for exploration by Turbine. I’d be upset if they hadn’t approached it the way they did, and having the game’s storyline basically run through the aftermath of the chaos stirred up by the Fellowship makes a lot of sense.

I’m not even bemoaning the existence of Mekhem-Bizru. I want it to be there, I need it to be there for many reasons. I just think that Turbine missed a huge opportunity with the transition from Moria to Lothlorien. An opportunity for drama (in the good sense of the word), for immersion, and for engaging their players.

Think back to the first time you read about the Fellowship’s flight from Moria, the fall of Gandalf, and the Mirrormere. Or think about those scenes from the movie; Gandalf facing down the Balrog, falling from the bridge, Aragorn pulling Frodo and the others out of Moria, and the utter grief of everyone sitting beside the Mirrormere. It was powerful. Or the actual entrance to Lothlorien, the humor of Gimli coming face to face with a drawn bow, and the Fellowship being found by the Elves of Lothlorien. Again, very dramatic.

I remember walking out of Moria thinking, “That’s it?”. There was a chance to make this very dramatic, and very memorable for the player, even using the systems that are in place. Two of Turbine’s better tools for this kind of drama – the cutscenes between books, and the in-game scenes they played around with in book 14 or 15 (or both) seem to have fallen by the wayside. I went back and checked – Volume 1 includes 19 cutscenes, where volume 2 includes 9. Less than half. For crying out loud, Volume 1, Chapter 1 alone includes 5 cutscenes. What happened?

And cutscenes aren’t the only method possible. I would have loved for something similar to the changing state of Archet way back at the beginning of the old Man introduction – the village itself changed state. Why not have a short instance at the exit from Moria, with the camp appearing afterwards. That area was perfect for that type of instance anyway, with the “glowing door” between zones. I’m not opposed to instancing, especially when it helps create a dramatic, memorable experience. It could be short, and even be a non-combat instance. Just give me something.

As I said, I understand why things are the way they are, and it doesn’t decrease my enjoyment to a significant degree. And I understand that creating this type of content requires time and effort. But for a game where story is so central to everything we see and do, any opportunities for more storytelling or drama should be taken up. Story is something LotRO really has going for it, and something Turbine has done better than any other MMO I’ve played.

But It’s So Pretty…

Like many, I’ve read through some of the recent conversation about Funcom’s first expansion, Rise of the Godslayer. I have to say, the temptation to return to Age of Conan is strong. I’ve long been a fan of Howard’s lore; but more than anything, it’s because the game is just so pretty. The world of Age of Conan is gorgeous – plain and simple.

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for these kinds of graphics. I played AoC at launch, even bought the Collector’s Edition. I started on day one, and played for the first month. And, like many other games, that was about it for me and Age of Conan. There were, and are, a lot of good things about AoC – the combat system, I felt, was a step in the right direction, and even at launch it was much more interactive and immediate than most games I’ve played, Funcom seemed to do a fine job with the lore, and they had created an amazing visual experience. For an exploration player, and a photographer, that’s huge.

My machine was even equipped to handle the game at reasonable resolutions. The problem was simple, and big – content. I got bored, quickly. Granted, there have been many changes to the game since launch, including more content, more zones, and improved graphics performance. So many changes that the main site has a multitude of links to details about what has changed since launch. Clearly, Funcom is making the attempt to overcome poor “buzz” and entice old players back. To an extent, I think Godslayer has helped a lot.

Because I have limited playing time, and I’ve found a wholly-renewed interest in LotRO, Age of Conan is a hard sell for me. There really is no comparison between content – even if Funcom added tons of quests, Tolkien’s work has always been far more compelling and interesting to me. So I’m left with visuals; I did a quick comparison using screens from both games’ official sites.

I’ll admit, they’re not perfect comparisons. But you get the idea. Clearly, Age of Conan wins out based solely on visuals (at least, it does to me). But does it win out enough?

I’m not sure. Have a suggestion that might help me decide? I’d love to hear it.